Six Minutes With Satch: Love, You Funny Thing / The New Tiger Rag

It's week 7 of "Six Minutes With Satch" and I hope you're enjoying reading these as much as I'm enjoying writing them (especially since the whole world is pretty much quarantined at this point--if you're looking for something to do, the least you can do is spend 6--or 600--minutes with Louis Armstrong, eh?).

The glorious OKeh period is coming to an end but there's still some wonderful stuff to share before we head to the glorious RCA Victor period on Wednesday. Up first is "Love You Funny Thing," written by the dynamite team of Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk, and set up to be the big tune of the moment, due to be featured in the film Grand Hotel and already the recipient of the Bing Crosby treatment on February 23, 1932.

Louis got around to it on March 2, an absolutely charming performance, even if it isn't one of his band's finest fact, you know it's bad when Louis himself has to point out the flaws on the record! It opens with the saxophones bizarrely alternating two pitches (how often do the trains go by?) while the peculiar sound of Mike McKendrick's guitar plink-plinks in the background....not exactly an arrangement for the books but I guess it provides some atmosphere. But don't fret, it's Louis to the rescue, immediately getting the thing swinging with two simple quarter notes. I never understood how it did it; quarter notes as quarter notes don't really swing but Louis knew had to place them and how to attack them just right so the whole thing takes off in forward motion.

Louis is muted here, too, which is always a treat. He clearly digs the melody but it's really a case of Louis listening to the band in his head...and playing what he's hearing. After almost every straight melodic line he plays or sings, he immediately follows it with a perfect fill, playing what he thinks the band should be playing (it's a shame he didn't do arrangements). Armstrong's playing is also filled with Crosby-like mordents, little turns at the end of phrase that are aquite effective.

When the bridge turns to D-minor, the reeds take over. It only takes Louis a couple of bars to not be impressed with their effort and he calls them out on it. "Bring it out, bring it out saxophones! Come on, out with it!" The reeds immediately respond with the full-throated blowing but it's still an awkward (though priceless) moment. Clearly, the song was brand new and the band needed some time familiarizing themselves with it. But they were in a studio and you'd think they'd have it ironed out when the recording light when on. Also, you'd think Louis or the A&R man for OKeh would have waved it off and said, "Let's try it again." But no, Louis admonishes them, they respond and the record moves forward. A fascinating little moment.

For his final eight bars, Louis can't wait to get the horn to his chops, playing an anticipatory phrase before the bridge is even over. Now he's feeling good, taking more chances with the melody, throwing in a well-placed gliss and ending on a high note. Most human beings would be happy with that but because he's Louis Armstrong, it's time for the vocal...and time for us to get a singing lesson.

Opening with a delightful "Mmmm," Louis swings right into the vocal, rephrasing it almost instantly; listen to the declamatory way he sings "look at what you did to me." But not wanting to come off as too harsh, Louis immediately follows it with a higher "Love" that sounds like pure sunshine. In fact, you can really hear him smiling on the next eight bars, especially with the way he swallows the words "First (or really, "Foist") you come along."

Armstrong dives into the bridge with a long "Ohhhh" before perhaps the most delicious moment of the vocal: he leaves a little gap of space and rushes back in with the lyrics "someone made it seem that way," a chunk of it rendered on a single pitch. Another "Oh" leads to the final eight bars, where Louis sticks mainly to the melody but still moans a few swinging asides.

After this vocal, there's time for one more chorus (barely; the finished product is 3:38, really pushing the limit of a 78 record). At the start of the record, Louis took the A sections while the bridge went to the band. Now, the roles are reversed as Louis becomes part of the arrangement during the A sections and saves his improvisitory genius for the bridge--and wow, what a bridge! There's so much information in these eight bars, it's almost stunning. He opens with a held note before snaking his way into the lower register with a run of notes that rhythmically free, blurs the bar lines and is full of tension. Just as he hits his lowest note, he responds with a frightening glissando back into the upper register. He follows that with another flurry of notes before he pauses, allows a second of space and flat out swings his last phrase so damn hard, pushing that last note up for maximum dramatic effect.

Nothing can top that bridge...and sure enough, nothing did. Louis rejoins the section to hit those high notes but the final eight bars are a ragged affair: the saxophones are off, trumpets are coming and's not pretty but Louis's final high note is the truth.

Now, to quickly bore everyone to tears with some discographical discussions. According to discographies, "Love, You Funny Thing" was the only song recorded on March 2, with a matrix number of W 405154. Fine. But Louis next ended the studio on March 11 to record three more songs. The opening number of that session, "New Tiger Rag" has a matrix number of W 405155. But the other two songs recorded on the 11th saw the matrix numbers jump up to 405166 and 405167. Hmmm, something doesn't seem right. I really find it somewhat hard to believe that a) Louis only recorded one song at the March 2 session and b) that OKeh recorded nothing else for the next nine days and resumed the March 11 session with the 405155 matrix number. My best guess is that Louis spent the bulk of the March 2 date working out the new material (which, as we heard, still didn't get perfected) and closed the session by trying "New Tiger Rag." Perhaps OKeh thought they could live with "New Tiger Rag," slapped the 405155 matrix number on it and called it a day. Then, when Louis returned on March 11, perhaps someone suggested they give "New Tiger Rag" another shot. They did, it was better, and it replaced the March 2 take, retaining the 405155 matrix number. Okeh had recorded ten songs with other artists in the intervening nine days so they resumed the rest of the March 11 Armstrong session with matrix number 405166. Make sense? Or maybe "New Tiger Rag" comes from the March 2 session and the discographies have been wrong for all these years?

Well, that's for other people to figure out. My usual response: who cares, let's just enjoy the music! If you've been with me a few weeks, Louis first tackled "Tiger Rag" proper on May 4, 1930 and his high-note studded, quote-filled version became a template for other trumpeters of period on how to tackle the tune. Many musicians and commentators would later remember Louis performing "Tiger Rag" live as his showstopper number, pulling it out to wow audiences and slay musicians, though the damage he did to his chops on numbers like this almost did him in for good. Between "Tiger Rag" and "Shine," Louis had two showpieces to choose from on which he would conclude by hitting at least 100 high C's, topped by a high F. Musicians present at such performances never forgot it though Louis himself later admitted that the public thought he was a maniac and that he was heading in the wrong direction.

But in 1932, he was still in his 100-high-C's mode. Because records were limited to about three-and-a-half minutes, it would be impossible for him to replicate his routine on wax (and it might have been a little monotonous...though fascinating!). Nevertheless, after almost two years of featuring it in his live performances, Louis felt the need to record his new, improved routine on the tune. Thus, on March 11, 1932 (maybe), he recorded what was known as "New Tiger Rag." Buckle your seat belt...

It doesn't take a licensed musicologist to realize that the tempo of "New Tiger Rag" is a bit on the up side. Frankly, it makes the 1930 version sound like a ballad. This is "Tiger Rag" on steroids. (I attempted to use an online metronome to get a number of beats per minute but my computer caught on fire.)

For Pops, the faster, the better. He wasn't really comfortable until he hit warp speed, at which point he'd be free to float around the bar lines without any gravity (if you ever need to explain how gravity and space travel works, just play a fast Louis Armstrong record from the early 30s). As for the other musicians in his band, well God speed. The horns and even the bass or piano could give it a two-beat feel and play at half the tempo but poor Mike McKendrick on guitar and poor Tubby Hall on drums sound like they're dying. In fact, Hall's later replacement Harry Dial, who joined the following year, once said about Louis, "He'd make me so mad on 'Tiger Rag' that I wouldn't know what to do. He'd want me to ride the cymbals on the last three choruses. I'd grab the cymbal around the eight chorus and start riding it, and by the end of the tenth it would sound good to him and he'd hit with one finger, which would mean one more chorus...and he'd play ten more choruses....That guy worked me to death."

Other New Orleans musicians, including drummer Baby Dodds, practically gave lectures on why "Tiger Rag" was not to be played too quickly. Pops obviously didn't attend those lectures!

Unlike the original version, Pops does play the first strain, though he doesn't so much play it verbatim as suggest the general shape of it by playing a pared-down, free-floating variation centered on few pitches. He then steps up to the mike and gives a cute little monologue about the "novelty" we're about to hear. Novelty, yes. Pops knew that this wasn't high art, this was something fun and exciting, a little showmanship and grandstanding to makes every jaw in earshot turn slack with awe. You want to hear the lyrical Pops? Just turn the 78 over and listen to "Love, You Funny Thing." You want a little "novelty" to get the blood pumping? You've come to the right place!

After announcing that he's gone and singing a delightful, sighing, "Oh babe," Pops gets his chops together and comes out of the starting gate with a perfect little opening phrase. Louis was the ultimate master of pacing himself and constructing a exciting solo. Thus, there's plenty of space in his first offering, spending most of his time simply alternating between two notes, before he warms up a bit towards the end. Interestingly, perhaps because of time constraints, Louis's first chorus is actually only a half-chorus, but I'm not going to penalize him for shaving 16 bars off.

A voice (I believe his old New Orleans friend Joe Lindsey) bellows out, "Two!" letting us know that round two is about to begin. Pops gets himself in a tizzy during his break, rapidly alternating between a C and an Eb, keeping it going for a few bars into the next chorus, before a shouting high Ab. This is the highest note of the solo thus far but Louis doesn't stay there for long. He leaves a little space after it and when he makes his return, it's to play the "Singin' in the Rain" quote from the 1930 record. Armstrong then breaks into a fluent run, which might sound like eighth-notes but are actually quarter-notes, each placed on the beat of this ridiculous tempo.

For the start of his third chorus, Armstrong holds that high Ab again before going into a whirlwind quote from "Dixie," ending it with a high C, the new highest note of the solo. Again, not wanting to peak too quickly, he hits the C and does a swan dive with it, glissing down to shallow waters. Once poised, he throws in a familiar lick, which sounds like it might be from something specific since it's been a part of the jazz vocabulary ever since.

Chorus four begins a new quote, Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song," another lick that would be found in improvisations for decades to come. Now he's really floating, playing as few notes as possible but still managing to swing them in a slightly altered state. He wakes up for a scorching repeated motif at the start of the fifth chorus but soon he's back to weightless territory, milking his trademark "doddle-doddle-da-da" lick for all its worth. He then turns one of his lines completely around the beat--what time this man had!--before repeating a couple of large Ab's and building up to chorus number six.

The sixth chorus might begin with a quote but I'm not sure what it is. However, I do know what comes at the midway point: our old pal "Pagliacci," straight from 1930. Armstrong's seventh chorus is truly in another time zone as he glisses to some more high Ab's in almost slow motion. To show a bit of endurance, he hits one and holds it into his eighth chorus (Pops announced it would take seven choruses to catch the tiger but obviously, this is one fast cat!). Armstrong again reaches back to 1930 by hammering out the "National Emblem March" twice to begin his eighth and final chorus. The rest of the record features more high notes, mostly Ab's, but he does rise to the occasion and ends with that same searing high Eb (high F on the trumpet).

"New Tiger Rag" isn't exactly a melodic masterpiece; in fact, I know some Armstrong worshippers who simply don't go for this kind of exhibitionism. But as I've proven before, I have no taste and little standards so I'm always wowed. Here's the audio--only one more OKeh gem to go!

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Zilner Randolph (tp), Preston Jackson (tb), Lester Boone (as), George James (as), Albert Washington (ts), Charlie Alexander (p), Mike McKendrick (g), John Lindsay (b), Tubby Hall (d).
OKeh recording session - Chicago, IL March 2, 1932

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Zilner Randolph (tp), Preston Jackson (tb), Lester Boone (as), George James (as, cl), Albert Washington (ts), Charlie Alexander (p), Mike McKendrick (g), John Lindsay (b), Tubby Hall (d).
OKeh recording session - Chicago, IL March 11, 1932

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